Metal produced by molten oxide electrolysis.
Courtesy Donald Sadoway / MIT Metal produced by molten oxide electrolysis.

Material innovations often come with a singular focus. However, this story tells of the strange pairing of two unlikely scientific achievements: the making of a more environmentally friendly steel and a way to generate oxygen on the moon.

Metallurgy experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have recently developed a process to create steel that requires less energy than conventional methods. This is welcome news considering that steel production—which is currently estimated at 1.5 billion tons annually—accounts for up to five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The new process involves the molten oxide electrolysis of iron ore using an alloy of chromium and iron. The method not only results in zero CO2 output, but also higher-quality, less expensive steel.

Intriguingly, the new electrochemical approach emits only pure oxygen—a surprisingly positive outcome for any industrial process. The beneficial discovery was based on prior research conducted by material chemistry professor Donald Sadoway, who sought to find ways to create oxygen on the moon from iron ore deposits on the moon's surface. When Sadoway experimented with iron ore–rich minerals located at Arizona's Meteor Crater, he discovered that his electrolysis method produced steel as a byproduct. This find led to the fortuitous combination of the two research efforts.

Sadoway and his fellow MIT scientists have since launched a company to explore the commercial development of molten oxide electrolysis for greener steel, which they anticipate will enter the marketplace in three years.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.